We don’t need another list to rank schools based on test scores


Long known for its university rankings, American News and World Report now ranks elementary and middle schools based on test scores. It is a terrible idea.

“What’s wrong with you?” A professor from the University of Virginia tweeted to the editors of the magazine. Old US News Editor-in-chief James Fallows took a similar but more polite approach to NPR. “These rankings have already done enough for the higher education ecosystem that with all the problems that public primary and secondary schools face, they don’t need them either,” he said.

US News staff members say they hope parents will benefit from the “sophistication” of their analysis of elementary and middle schools, which attempts to account for student demographics. The methodology uses two criteria: the performance of a school’s reading and math status tests, as well as the performance of each school relative to other schools with similar proportions of economically disadvantaged and poorly minority students. served. (Unlike high school and middle school rankings, which are national, those at lower levels are ranked only by state and district, because different states give different tests.)

The aim is to avoid rewarding schools that simply educate children from affluent classes, who generally do better on standardized tests. US News made a similar effort with its college rankings, instituting a separate category of “social mobility.” But its top-rated universities are elite institutions like Princeton, Columbia, Harvard, and MIT.

Elementary and middle school rankings aren’t much different, according to Michael Kurtz, associate professor of economics at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania. After scanning the list for his state, he told me, “It always seems that schools with a lot of economically disadvantaged students are at the bottom of the list and those with a lot of affluent students are at the top. Well, you just made a map of the wealth of the country. An analysis of the Chalkbeat education website came to a similar conclusion.

When I looked at the rankings for Washington, DC, where I live, I found a slightly more complicated picture. Among traditional public schools, those at the top tended to have low proportions of economically disadvantaged students. But the story was different for charter schools, which enroll about 45% of DC public school students. Among the top ten elementary schools, one was a charter serving a low-income population; of DC’s top colleges, at least four fit this description.

It is possible that these schools are helping their students overcome obstacles, but it’s hard to say unless we know how they are doing in high school and beyond. The US News High school and college rankings can be simplistic, as critics claim, but at least they’re not based solely on reading and math scores. The criteria also include things like graduation rates and TBEN scores (for high schools) or academic reputation (for colleges).

As Kurtz notes, test scores are just one aspect parents should look for when choosing a school. What about fostering children’s creativity, social skills, curiosity, he asks, or just helping them have fun? And he fears that if parents base their decisions on US News rankings, “schools may think they need to focus more on test scores than they otherwise would.”

He is right to be worried. Curricula and teaching in elementary and middle schools have already been skewed by pressure to raise scores at these grade levels. (Federal law also requires testing once in high school, but these scores tend to receive less attention.) Many states and districts, including DC, have their own publicly available rankings based on scores, just like the GreatSchools website. Some of them, unlike US News, at least take into account the growth of the test score.

Because of the emphasis on scores, schools have marginalized or eliminated social studies and science from the curriculum to focus on reading and math, especially when test scores are low. And the teaching of reading has come to mimic the structure of the test: short, disconnected passages followed by questions meant to assess the ability to “get the main idea” or “make an inference.”

High-stakes testing did not create this educational approach, but they exacerbated it – and the US News rankings, along with headlines on a state’s “Top Ten Elementary Schools”, could make matters worse. It’s not just that a regular diet of “getting the main idea” is boring. It is also self-destructive.

Unlike pedagogical orthodoxy, reading comprehension is not just a set of skills that can be taught in the abstract and applied to any text. It is essentially an outgrowth of academic knowledge and vocabulary. And the subjects that have been sidelined in the quest to score better in reading (social studies, science and the arts) are those that have the most potential to improve this knowledge and vocabulary, if students are there. are exposed through consistent content and rich program.

Parents need help choosing schools. And polls have shown that what matters most to parents is “academic achievement”. This now means high scores on standardized tests, but it is not mandatory – and especially in the case of reading tests, this measurement can be misleading. High scores at lower levels do not necessarily translate into the ability to do a college or even high school job.

Passages on the reading tests at lower levels do not assume much academic knowledge or vocabulary, so it may see as if the children were improving themselves to “find the main idea”. But at higher school levels, the passages become more and more complex. And if their schools have not systematically built their academic knowledge, students may no longer understand what they are supposed to read, on tests and in the classroom. Reading tests also fail to measure students’ writing ability, which is crucial in high school, college, and often in life.

What can policymakers, government agencies, and publications do to provide parents with a better guide to school quality? Kurtz and others have proposed a Consumer reports-style list of attributes. I would say this should include a key factor that is rarely mentioned: the curriculum. Do young children learn to decipher words through systematic teaching of phonetics, supported by scientific evidence? Do children listen to and discuss complex texts that reinforce academic knowledge and vocabulary, starting in kindergarten, guided by one of the many elementary literacy programs recently developed?

It is surprisingly difficult to get this kind of information, but that has to change. We must understand that What is taught is of vital importance. It would also be nice to have a school inspection system, like the English model, which could help parents determine whether a program is being delivered effectively.

Ideally, we would administer a different kind of reading test, with passages based on curriculum content, or at least broader state academic standards for social studies and science. This would help level the playing field for pupils less able to acquire academic knowledge outside of school and encourage teachers to focus on the content of instruction rather than on illusory ‘skills’.

For at least twenty years, we have considered reading and math scores as measures of school quality. During this period, we have seen stagnant or declining scores and a growing gap between high and low scores. Some argue that the problem is not enough accountability, that is, insufficient emphasis is placed on the accountability of schools for student test scores. These observers could see the new US News rankings as a welcome development.

But the evidence indicates that we also put a lot emphasis on accountability, at least in its present form. If we do not wean ourselves from our addiction to standardized testing, we will only continue to condemn millions of students to a version of education that stifles their natural curiosity and true potential.